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The girl who was saturda.., p.19
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       The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, p.19

           Heather O'Neill
 

  He took his sunglasses off and looked at me. He looked apologetic, as if he should have told me a long, long time ago. He never cried and I knew he wasn’t going to now. I put my arms around him.

  “I wish you could have told me all this years ago. Then it wouldn’t have been a secret.”

  “I was always envious of you and Nicolas and the relationship that you guys had.”

  “Why?”

  “Your desk was right in front of me. Remember how you always sat next to each other in class? And we were in the middle of a test. You looked over at his test and you filled in something very quickly for him. I imagined what it would be like to have you next to me, filling in all the answers for me.”

  “You should have asked me out way back then.”

  “You would sit on the bench, inside the same jacket, reading from the same comic book. Whenever you tried to turn a page, he’d slap you and you slapped him back. When I saw the way that you were with your brother, I knew that you were the only girl in the city that would have a heart big enough to love me.”

  We got off the bus to walk the rest of the way home. We didn’t care that it was winter. At least it meant that there was no one on the street. It seemed as if Judgment Day had just happened.

  We walked down Rue Sainte-Catherine. We passed hundreds of tiny stores that were closed for the night: a tiny drugstore named Quebodeaux after its owners, a grocery store with its windows plastered with specials, a French bookstore with a framed photograph of Michel Foucault in the window, a boucherie with a pig painted on the glass door. We passed a store with prosthetic limbs in the window. I never saw anyone go in. Perhaps it did a brisk business after World War I. They sold mechanical hearts in the back. You could go in and have your broken one replaced.

  Up above all the stores were cheap apartments. All the blue lights from the television sets. As if the inhabitants were up late, being visited by the Virgin Mary.

  Love is like this small room where a child brings you to show you all their treasures. First the child shows you all the new toys that are bright and shiny and top of the line. But then she shows you all the stuff that has ended up at the bottom of the trunk. There are dolls with eyes that wobble, hair that is falling out of their heads, and dirt behind their ears. Their fingertips have been chewed off by dogs and they have been drawn on with ballpoint pen. It has been so long since they have been held or anyone has told them that they are lovely. They lie at the bottom of the toy chest, hidden and ashamed. You are either going to be disgusted by them, or you are going to be so filled with love for them that your heart almost breaks.

  I took his hand in mine.

  I woke up late that night. Raphaël was standing at the window with no clothes on and smoking a cigarette, looking cool and tough. Boys are good at personas. There are a certain number that you can get at the drugstore, like costumes before Halloween. Being cool is pretending that you’re not afraid of anything. But everybody is afraid. Everybody is afraid.

  I remembered that in school we thought Raphaël was snobby because he had won medals and had a sweater that was covered in patches. But he wasn’t proud. He was terrified. That was what the look on his face was. But nobody guessed it. It was a curse to have a face that was impossible to read.

  He climbed back into bed later. Although he held me tightly as we slept, we did not make love that night.

  CHAPTER 34

  The Most Dangerous Man on Boulevard Saint-Laurent

  EVEN THOUGH I TRIED TO TALK TO RAPHAËL, HE grew more distant. He poured himself a glass of whiskey when he came home in the evening. He took off his clothes whenever he was drunk. After two drinks he’d be standing in the apartment wearing only an undershirt and underwear. There was a halo over his head when he drank. You could see him warming up and start to glow.

  He stopped eating dinner. He cooked himself up some magic mushroom tea one night. He drank it out of a mug with the comic-book hero Lucky Luke on it. He sat on the other side of the kitchen table, winking at me.

  I noticed that he never reacted to a single thing on the TV. And he always had totally random expressions on his face. He once looked like he was in terrible pain. I asked him what he was thinking and he said that he was trying to figure out where he had put his keys.

  I woke up and Raphaël had his gun in his hand, pointed at me.

  “Who are you?” he asked.

  I kicked him in the stomach with my bare foot. I picked up a tiny teacup that was on the bedside table and flung it at his head. Then I stood up in front of him and slapped him as hard as I could. He reached out and whacked me across the face. What a smack!

  We stood staring at each other, as if we were waiting for something to happen. It was as if we were both trying to wake ourselves up from this awful dream—this strange dream where we were married.

  I started to laugh my head off because nothing happened. This was reality. This was my world. I was stuck, married, in a tiny apartment. We were uneducated. We had no prospects. We were a typical sixties Québécois couple living in the nineties. We had thrown our futures away. We would be doing the same thing fifty years from now. The difference was that we would be uglier. We would argue with each other on Friday nights.

  He looked at me some days like I was a hostage that no one was paying the ransom for. Marriage was disgusting, wasn’t it?

  Later that night I lay in bed studying for history class. Love is cursed in Montréal. Samuel de Champlain’s wife cursed it. She was twelve years old when she had to marry Champlain. She was repulsed. She wanted to go right back to Paris, where she could drink chocolat chaud and fall in love with boys named Bruno. They told her in France to just go limp and then she would have a darling baby to play with. Every time he went near her, she screamed at the top of her lungs.

  Champlain’s beard was shaved into the shape of a heart and his sleeves were the puffiest that money could buy. He knelt down at her bedside in his flea collar and wept and felt alive. Her rejection was like a drug. He had never seen a pale little face like hers. It was just like the hole that you cut out of the ice to go fishing.

  He liked making her angry. There was nothing so beautiful as that girl thrashing about and pouting her round little mouth, which was like a drop of red wax sealing an envelope. She ran into the woods one night, wearing only her petticoats, which looked like frost on glass windows. The mud coughed violently beneath her feet, like an old man clearing his throat. Her little fists were clenched and her little knees knocked together. She pulled out her hair and shook her locks.

  She started spitting out horrible, wee, adorable, unthinkable curses. She hoped that the Iroquois would kill Champlain. She hoped that every other married person was just as unhappy as she was. You could still hear her curses on very cold days. When the wind was like paper airplanes being thrown at your head. When the wind was like walking through plates of glass.

  CHAPTER 35

  Mon Oncle Loulou

  AND POOR NICOLAS! WHAT ON EARTH WAS HE UP to every day? I should not have let him out of my sight after the court case. Before when Nicolas was upset, we would talk about nothing and everything until he felt better. We would pace around the block until the sadness got bored and stopped following us. Who was helping him feel better now? Who could replace me? I kept expecting to look outside the window and see Nicolas leading some rag-and-bones orchestra of disadvantaged kids down the street. They would be banging on old laundry buckets and blowing into recorders and kazoos, playing the most sorrowful version of “Alouette” that anyone had ever heard. But Raphaël was a handful and I was working and going to school. And then the real snowfalls began.

  There were trucks everywhere trying to make sense of it, all day and night they worked, carting away massive containers of snow to dump into the river. The cars were completely buried under piles of snow. People shovelled them out for hours only to find that they wouldn’t start. The roofs of elementary schools caved in. The statues had piles of snow on their heads, so angels lo
oked like they had fur hats on.

  It was hard on old people. Some of them just died. They couldn’t get their rickety grocery carts down the street.

  Loulou had been living all by himself for the first time since the thirties.

  I had promised to take him to the Friday drop-in clinic. When I entered the apartment, Loulou was wearing a pair of pants that had stains on them and a checkered lumberjack jacket. He had a white scarf with an orange maple leaf knitted into it around his neck. He said he had come in from the cold and didn’t feel like taking his jacket off because it would be so much trouble to put it back on.

  The clinic was an old apartment in a building. All the old bedrooms had been turned into consultation rooms. The walls were covered with wood panels and the linoleum had blue snowflakes on it.

  There was a poster of a heart on the wall, held up with thumbtacks. There were little names of the parts of the heart with arrows drawn to them: Aorta, Obsession, Right Ventricle, Sentimentality, Pulmonary Artery, Pathos, Pulmonic Valve, Sadness, Romanticism, Delusion, Love, Hatred, Superior Vena Cava.

  “What’s the matter with you?” I asked Loulou.

  “I get dizzy when I stand up. I have the feeling that the whole room is filled with steam and clouds. I’m tired all the time. I’m always crapping my pants on the way back from the grocery store. My toes are blue. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my sheet is drenched with sweat. I’m so depressed I could shoot myself. My right knee doesn’t work.”

  Loulou was always trying to impress on Nicolas and me the fact that he was old and that he had serious health issues. But we could never believe it. We were too young. We didn’t really believe in death and there was nothing that anybody could do to change our minds about it. I still didn’t really care about his condition that day. I was preoccupied by my own problems.

  “I’ve been feeling confused about life,” I said.

  Loulou looked up at the ceiling and sighed deeply.

  “I’m not sure if I understand this whole marriage business.”

  “You went and got married. Everybody warned you.”

  “Can’t you tell me something more than ‘I told you so’?”

  “Well, once you marry somebody, you have to get to know them. People are filled with all sorts of strange characteristics. One of the terrible things that happen to people in this lifetime is that we fall in love. There’s no dignity in love. It’s ugly and it’s crazy. You chose to marry somebody with demons. Now you have to deal with all of those demons.”

  “Maybe I should just move back home.”

  “No one on earth can tell a person to leave their husband or wife. Don’t ask me about that, Nouschka. That’s something between you and God.”

  “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

  “That doesn’t mean He won’t come strike me down. You’re not a little kid. You have to pay the consequences. When you get to be my age, you look at a kid that’s seven years old and you know it already. You say, ‘This kid is going to have trouble paying his rent his whole life.’”

  “And me? What did you see when I was seven years old?”

  In these clinics you waited so long that it seemed like a miracle when they finally called your name. We were so flustered. We started looking around us as if we had important documents and briefcases that we couldn’t accidentally leave behind. Loulou was so lost. This was his call for his big audition. It took him so long to shuffle into the room. He moved slowly, turning side to side like a windup toy trying to move in a straight line.

  He took his sweater off. He was stuck for a while with the sweater halfway off his head. He looked like a turtle that had pulled its head in. He was wearing a thin gold chain with a tiny cross on it. It was the same chain that he had had since he was a very small boy. It still fit him.

  “Raise your arms.”

  “There’s a woman upstairs from me who is deliberately running the shower at the same time that I’m taking one, so I can’t take warm showers.”

  Like any old person who lived alone, he just wanted to tell the doctor about everything that had happened to him lately. It felt so good to be able to talk to someone that he just didn’t know when to stop. He was like a hungry person eating.

  “I’m worried that there’s a Q-tip stuck in my ear and that’s why I can’t hear anything.”

  “I examined your ear canal and there’s nothing in there.”

  “There are junkies in the neighbourhood. They break into my apartment and steal my heart medication.”

  “You can go to the pharmacy for a renewal.”

  “I bought a microwave from the neighbour’s son. It doesn’t even work. I put a bag of popcorn in it and I sat in front of it for seven hours, waiting for it to pop.”

  “Mmm-hmm.”

  “I’ve been waking up, lying on the kitchen table.”

  “You sleepwalk?”

  “I have no idea how I got there.”

  I would instinctively try to stop Loulou from talking about something that couldn’t possibly be of any interest to the person he was talking to. It always hurt his feelings, so this time I just decided to let him go on.

  The doctor wasn’t responding to anything that Loulou said, no matter how wild it was. The doctor looked as if he was above all the elderly oddballs that came in. They all lived in tiny apartments with mismatched plates. It was his job to keep these people alive, but there didn’t seem to really be a point to their being alive. Loulou had been giving away part of his paycheque for years in order to sit in this cramped room and be looked down on by the doctor. This was our lauded free health-care system that we bragged about to the world.

  “She used to be on television, you know.”

  This always got people’s attention. The doctor glanced around at us, vaguely interested, but then he lost focus again. He seemed absolutely exhausted and overworked. Anyways, how could he possibly recognize me in a wet fur hat and combat boots with scuffed toes. He was English. He watched American television. They had no idea whatsoever what happened in French Québec.

  “Nouschka spoils me. I raised her myself. She had a red raincoat that was so cute. I never knew anything about little girls. I don’t know what on earth you’re supposed to tell a girl to stay out of trouble. She ran around wild. Little boys’ mothers would come and complain that she had been playing doctor with their kids. I thought for sure that she had a career in medicine ahead of her, because she played doctor so much.”

  He laughed really loud so that he didn’t have to notice that no one else was laughing at his terrible joke.

  There was a knock on the door and the doctor stepped out for a moment to talk to the nurse, making us wait again.

  “What was I like when I was seven?” I asked. “You were about to tell me.”

  “You were always fretting about Nicolas. When your brother broke his arm, you cried for three days. You were always worried that we were all going to die. You were worried about the neighbours’ cats. Just worry about yourself. You don’t have to worry about the whole world. It doesn’t do it any good.”

  That suddenly made me sad. He was right. All that worrying hadn’t done anything for anybody. It certainly wasn’t helping Raphaël. The doctor walked back in, interrupting my melancholy.

  “Do my feet look blue to you?” Loulou asked.

  The doctor glanced at Loulou’s feet for a split second and then went back to writing on his pad.

  “Are you voting Oui ou Non?”

  That got his attention. The doctor looked up at the old babbling lunatic, whose Oui vote could put an end to the life he was enjoying. English speakers had an absolute horror of separation, and scores of them had left after the first referendum. Loulou smiled innocently at the doctor.

  CHAPTER 36

  The Titanic Sails at Midnight

  OONCE IT WAS COLD, IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO imagine that it had ever not been cold. Arguments lasted longer. They hid behind couches and under the table. They stayed in the c
orner like a sulking child waiting for you to ask what was wrong, so that he could start complaining all over again.

  On New Year’s Eve I wanted to go to the Ukrainian Ballroom. I went there every year.

  Raphaël put on a black sheepskin hat, a thick woollen peacoat and a long scarf with red and blue stripes, which he wrapped around and around his neck.

  I had on a coonskin hat. You bought them at the back of the tiny tourist shops, along with wallets made out of sealskin, toy polar bears, maple syrup and miniature Indian braves. I put on my black coat.

  I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a little matryoshka doll. Misha had given it to me. There were always things that were left in the pockets of your winter coats from last year. My last winter was so far away that it was like a childhood memory that I had completely forgotten. I was going to time-travel that night.

  Sometimes I would be pulling on a pair of tights and I would remember a past adventure. I would remember a time when I was at the cheap repertory movie theatre. And the boy next to me walked his two fingers up my legs and under my skirt. And put his fingers inside me.

  I always ran into boys I had slept with. They would do things that clearly acknowledged that we had slept together. They would wink in a stupid way. They would smile a giant smile. Or do some sort of bad moonwalking on the opposite side of the metro.

  At the entrance of the club, there were mounds and mounds of coats hanging from the coat racks. The rose-patterned radiators were spray-painted gold. The water inside them was boiling hot. If you touched them, your hand would be scorched. If you left your hat on them too long, it would catch fire.

  People were getting on stage to sing popular songs, while the policemen’s band played along. They were cheaper than a regular band. They all wore navy blue uniforms. I think that they gave a portion of their pay to burned children.

  The old people were wearing paper crowns. They were dancing by taking two steps forward and two steps back. They were wearing their fancy suits that they hadn’t worn since the holidays last year.

 
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